Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister - Gregory Maguire

Title: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

Author: Gregory Maguire
Published: 1999 Pages: 368
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5

Last year I read and really enjoyed Wicked by Maguire, so I was excited when I found a used copy of Confessions for cheap. And of course then it sat on my shelf for about a year. Hate when that happens! Carl's Once Upon a Time Challenge was the perfect chance for me to read this one. And I'm glad I did--but I didn't love it as much as Wicked.

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is a retelling of the Cinderella tale, but while many parts of the book were familiar, this definitely isn't the Disney version. Set in the seventeenth century, Margarethe flees England with her two small daughters, Ruth and Iris, to start a new life in Holland. Their circumstances are mysterious, but is evident that a tragedy involving Ruth and Iris's father has occurred--a tragedy that is quickly swept under the rug. Desperate to make sure her daughters are fed and sheltered, Margarethe does everything she can to claw her way into situations that will help them all rise above the dirt and squalor of reality. Along the way, they become involved in the Van der Meer household where they meet Clara--a small and curious child, a changeling of sorts.

Once Margarethe and her daughters intertwine themselves in the life of the Van der Meers, the story becomes more familiar--Margarethe eventually becomes the evil stepmother we all know and Ruth and Iris become the stepsisters. But they aren't evil like we have learned in the original fairytale. This story is twisted into a perspective that recreates the story of Cinderella.

"In the lives of children, pumpkins can turn into coaches, mice and rats into human beings. When we grow up, we learn that it's far more common for human beings to turn into rats" (x).

I enjoyed many elements of the story--of course seeing the wellknown fairytale in a different light. I've come to really enjoy different tellings and one of my favorite aspects of literature is perspective. There is always more than one side of the story, but we usually see the side of the successor. In this case the reader sees what might have really occured--what Clara or Cinderella was truly like, the interaction between the stepsisters and Clara, and of course the stepsisters' part in the tale.

I also really liked the characterization and side stories in this book. Iris seems to be the main character, and she is a strong and willful young woman. Her sister Ruth is mute and often plays second fiddle (or even third after Clara), but she is still an important member of the cast. Margarethe is wretched--everything you would expect an evil stepmother to be. Surrounding the story is the tulip craze and a painter, Luykas Schoonmaker, who tries to capture beauty but often paints the horrific truth instead. And then Caspar who in many respects is the fairy godmother of the story. True beauty is a major theme within the novel, and all of these characters in some way represent some type of beauty--whether pure beauty or tainted and false.

There is a richness to Maguire's storytelling that I really love, but the execution of the storytelling is sometimes jarring or disconnected. There were many storylines that were dragged on for too long in the book and some that I didn't think were fully satisfied, such as the story of what happened in England before they left for Holland. I suppose this is to be left a mystery, but it felt a little too unsettled to me.

This review is much longer than I intended--when beginning I half thought I didn't really have much to say about the book. It was an enjoyable read, but I didn't find it terribly memorable. If you're looking to read Maguire, certainly go with Wicked which seemed much more complex to me. I'm interested in reading more of his Oz series but don't know if I'll try any of his other retellings just yet. What is your favorite fairytale retelling? Have you read any Maguire?

Also reviewed by:
Bonnie from Redlady's Reading Room
Jeane from Dog Ear Diary
Raych from books i done read
*let me know if I missed yours

This concludes my reading for the Once Upon a Time Challenge III. I had hoped to read The Book of Lost Things and Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell, but there just isn't enough time. What I did finish:

Tales of Beedle the Bard - JK Rowling
The Light Fantastic - Terry Pratchett
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister - Gregory Maguire

Date Finished: June 13, 2009 #29


bermudaonion said...

My sister loves Maguire's work and has passed a lot of his books on to me, but I just didn't enjoy them. I know I'm in the minority. I'm glad you liked this one!

Trisha said...

I felt the same way regarding Maguire. I adored Wicked, liked Confessions, and don't really remember Mirror, Mirror. I think part of the less positive feelings regarding Maguire's other work is that Wicked was just so good and I read it first. While Wicked is extremely political, allegorical even, and imbued with details, the other works seem more simplistic. I do think, however, that had I read Confessions first, I would have liked it more. Great review!

Melody said...

I love fairy tales retellings!!! I'm quite intrigued with this book actually, so I'll have to check it out.

The latest I read on retellings is The Godmother: The Secret Cinderealla Story by Carolyn Turgeon and I really loved it!

Kerri said...

I'm with you on Wicked. I really enjoyed that book. Shortly after I bought Confessions. I've started it about three times and can't seem to get past the first 50 pages. I really would like to read it one day because I hate not finishing.

Amanda said...

You know, I don't think I really like retellings of old fairy tales. I tried reading A Curse As Dark as Gold recently and couldn't get into it. That seems to happen with retold fairy tales for me. Oddly, watching moves that are retellings seem to be fine, though...

claire said...

I've only read Mirror Mirror and I remember liking it somewhat but it didn't stick with me. I don't remember much of it now.

Eva said...

I've read this one, his Snow White retelling and Wicked. I think Wicked is light years above the other ones!

My favourite fairy tale retellings are Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier (about The Twelve Dancing Princesses) and Beauty by Robin McKinley.

C. B. James said...

I loved Wicked, read it more times than I can remember. Basically, I think he struck gold with Wicked and has been striking silver ever since. I liked Confessions and Mirror, Mirror, but couldn't get more than halfway through Son of a Witch.

A terrific fairy tale retelling is Ella Enchanted. I've never seen the film, but my students all enjoy the book, even the boys though not as much as the girls. For a really interesting take on Red Riding Hood see The Company of Wolves which is based on Angela Carter's short stories.

Veens said...

Thank u for pointing out the google reader thing. it was a settings issue.. i hope it will be resolved when i next post :)

I dnt know.. I have never read a different aspect of a story well known! :) I hope to try something :) maybe this.. if I can get it !

Trish said...

*Bermuda - I liked this one OK, but Wicked was much better for me. Sorry you can't get into them.

*Trisha - I sometimes wonder if I head read books in a different order if I would have liked them better. Yes, Wicked seemed much richer than this one.

*Melody - I haven't read The Godmother, but I'll have to check it out to see how it compares to this one.

*Kerri - This one was definitely easier for me to read, but it wasn't as compelling as Wicked, for sure.

*Amanda - Some things are like that for me as well--where I like the movie better than the books. Suspense or action I like fine in movies but not in books. Same with some fantasy.

*Claire - Well then, you should try Wicked! It is a great take on Oz and gives lots of things to think about.

*Eva - I keep forgetting about Beauty! I've had that one on my list forever. I'll be sure to look up Wildwood Dancing as well.

*CB - I saw the movie Ella Enchanted and enjoyed it, but haven't gotten to the book. Sorry to hear about Son of a Witch--that probably would have been my next one.

*Veens - No problem--looks like your posts are fixed now. This one is a pretty easy book to read, but if you're interested in retellings, Wicked is a great take on The Wizard of Oz.

Brittany said...

You know, after reading What-the-Dickens (which, to be fair, is his YA book), I took all of his other books off my reading list. I thought the writing/story development was that poor. I've often wondered if it would be worth reading Wicked anyway, but I haven't been able to convince myself to revisit any of his books yet.

Scrap girl said...

I have just picked this one up from the charity shop and I am really looking forward to it. Although I am a little wary of reports that his books are not very good. I will just have to give it a go.

Nicole said...

I think I have a few of the Maguire books floating around but I have not been able to get into him. I don't even remember the ones that I have r maybe I have given them away by now.. I have to investigate.

Anonymous said...

Wicked was a tricky read for me, and hence I haven't delved into much more of McGuire's work. The only part of Wicked I remember with any clarity at all is (a lot of sex?) and the idea he presented that the Wicked Witch melts at the touch of water as a form of baptism. Now, that was a fascinating thought. Everything else left me cold, unfortunately. Although he does have a powerful imagination!

Padfoot and Prongs - Good Books Inc. said...

Great post. I have wanted to give this a try for awhile. Maybe I will have to add it to my 'fun' list for the summer.

Jeane said...

I really enjoyed this one and Wicked, but some of his other books didn't work for me- I think I didn't even finish Mirror, Mirror. I never thought before that Caspar filled the role of fairy godmother but now I see that very clear. Retold fairy stories can be very cool.

Lezlie said...

I was luke-warm with Maguire's Oz books, but I really loved this one. It is by far my favorite Maguire book. My favorite fairy-tale retelling, however, is The Coachman Rat. I can't remember the author right off hand. It is the creepiest Cinderella story I ever read!


Diane said...

I never read any of the Maguire books, but i have heard comments that they were enjoyable. Sorry this one wasn't the greatest.

Nymeth said...

Strong characterizations, a familiar story from a new sounds like a book for me, even if it has some flaws. As you know I loved Wicked, but that's all I've read by him so far. Son of a Witch is on one of my challenge lists, so I'll get to it this year.

Speaking of Cinderella, have you read Ella Enchanted? I feel like I was possibly the last person on earth to read it, but oh, it was so good! Really funny and charming and smart.

Bookfool said...

I have a copy of this one, but when I tried to read it I just couldn't get into it. I probably buried it somewhere and ought to find it and pass it on. Thanks for the review! I feel better about it, now. Sometimes you just think you're supposed to love a book, you know?

Teresa said...

I've read this one, Wicked, and Son of a Witch. I seem to always enjoy MacGuire's books when I'm reading them, but I don't love then and they generally don't stick with me when I'm done. Wicked was the only one that I remember much about. (I remembered just enough to be annoyed by the musical, which I know makes me an odd duck.)

Trish said...

*Brittany - Hmm, maybe the YA factor, but I think all of his books are kind of YA/Adult (at least that’s what this one says somewhere on the book). Wicked is a much more complex read with political and moral overtones. Maybe try that one?

*Scrap girl - It’s a fairly quick book to read, so definitely give it a shot! I do hope you like it and I know others really like his work, especially Wicked. I’ll look forward to hearing what you think.

*Nicole - I hope you find them! I’ve always got my eye out for them at library sales and such. They’re definitely fun reads—I hope my comments on this one haven’t been too negative because I did enjoy the book.

*Bellezza - I do remember a few love scenes in the book and some religious overtones, but the thing that stuck out to me the most was the political content. I think Wicked is one of those books that people either like or don’t—seems I remember that from the comments in my Wicked post.

*Padfood and Prongs - Definitely a great book for the summer! I love the different perspective he presents in this book—hope you enjoy it!

*Jeane - I don’t really know about Caspar being like the fairy godmother, but it really struck me near the end when he was the one who got the gown and such for Clara—really made things happen. Who knows! It just couldn’t be a Cinderella story without a fairy godmother, though, right? :)

*Lezlie - Coachman Rat sounds really creepy! Too bad about the Oz books being luke-warm for you—I think that’s where I was planning on heading next. Have you read Mirror, Mirror?

*Diane - It wasn’t the greatest but it was still good. If you like fairytales or seeing familiar stories in a different light, definitely give Maguire’s books a try.

*Nymeth - You’re the second person to mention Ella Enchanted, so I guess I’ll have to look for it! I’ll look forward to hearing what you think of Son of a Witch! I think that will be my next one. And I do think you’d like this one—it just isn’t quite as rich as Wicked.

*Bookfool - Yup, I know that exact feeling—thinking you should love a book and then feeling bad that you don’t. I was pretty neutral about this book—mostly the writing was awkward to me—but I found it interesting.

*Teresa - Well, the musical is SO different from the book! I have some friends who recently saw the musical and would like to read the book now and I've warned them that it is much more political and a little less "happily ever after" than the play. I actually haven't seen it, but I love the songs. Yes, I am truly a nut. :P Do you plan to read A Lion Among Men?

joanna said...

I've had Wicked on my shelf for years but haven't gotten to it yet. Sound familiar? ;-) Congrats on finishing the challenge, I love this one!

Fyrefly said...

This is one of the oldest books on my TBR pile... (as in been on the pile the longest). I haven't gotten rid of it, because I know I want to read it eventually... but it just never calls my name strong enough to actually pick it off the shelf. I think it's probably because, as you said, Gregory Maguire's books are good, but never really memorable for me.

Oh, except for his kids' book Leaping Beauty. That one was great. :)

Teresa said...

Trish, I haven't made up my mind about A Lion Among Men. I thought Son of a Witch was fine, but not great, so I'm not highly motivated to read more. But I may get the audiobook from the library. I think Maguire's writing would work on audio.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed Wicked when i read it a few years ago, though I remember wishing Maguire had fleshed out some details that were a little fuzzy for me. But I could barely get past the first chapter of Confessions. I don't know if was just the mindset I was in or the fact that I continually compared it to Wicked, but I just couldn't finish it.

Paxton said...

Interesting, Trish. I also read Wicked. I read it in 2000 before there was ever a musical based on it. I did not enjoy the book. I thought it was a little too dense and political for an Oz story. The musical was more along the lines of what I was expecting.

I would be interested in hearing what you think of the second two Maguire Oz books.

Debi said...

I was about to say that I haven't read anything by him, but then I remembered I did read a Snow White retelling poem, "The Seven Stage a Comeback," that I really didn't like at all. :( But I've had Wicked on my shelves for ages now, and I really do want to get around to reading it one of these days. (You know, like the other 3,000 books on my shelves.)

Joanne said...

I love the idea of Maguires' fairy tale stories but I still haven't gotten around to reading any of them.

Lezlie said...

Trish ~ I have. I liked it, but it's really, really odd. It's one of those books I want to read again to see if I get more of it on round two. :-) I'd be extra interested this time around as I know a little more about the Borgias, and they are in that book.


Veens said...

I will try and let you know. Thanks Trish!

Anonymous said...

I also read and enjoyed Wicked a few years back, but I haven't grabbed anything else by Maguire! Something about him intimidates me... I don't know if it's the sheer heft of the books or what! :) But I enjoyed your review and will definitely think about adding him back in the rotation someday!

Jess said...

I agree -- loved Wicked, but this one was just okay for me. Have a great week of reading!

Trish said...

*Joanna - Yes--having a book sit on my shelf for years sounds just like me. You should read Wicked!

*Fyrefly - Well then, sounds like a great reason to read this one. I'm trying to get all my "older" books read this year as well. And this one is easy--won't take you too long to read.

*Teresa - Good idea about the audio--I think I'll have to try that for some of his other books.

*Jackets and Covers - I didn't have the problem of comparing this one with Wicked while reading it, but I can't help but notice it just isn't as good. Guess they can't all be winners.

*Paxton - I haven't seen Wicked (boo!), but I'm familiar with the music and from what I gather they made the play more "happily ever after" than the book. Have you read any of the other Oz books?

*Debi - LOL! 3000 books! How are you not drowning over there? Read Wicked--it's an interesting take on Oz and I'd love to hear what you think.

*Joanne - I really like the idea of retold fairy tales as well. This was a good one, but Wicked was better in my opinion.

*Lezlie - Hmmm--gonna have to go look up the Borgias to see what you're talking about! :)

*Veens - Hope you like it!

*Writemeg - This book was much much lighter than Wicked (in size and density). Wicked was much more political than this one. Read it and see what you think.

*Jess - It's too bad that this one wasn't quite as good--maybe there wasn't enough depth to the story to begin with? Hope you're having a good reading week as well.

Melissa - Shhh I'm Reading said...

I liked this one, but didn't think it was amazing. I thought the tulip setting was interesting.

I still haven't read Wicked. I've heard such mixed things about it, that I haven't made time for it, even though I loved the show!

Laura said...

Even though you didn't LOVE this book, your review makes me want to read it soon! The story sounds more interesting to me than Wicked, but then, I also kinda know what happens in Wicked already. I really like the name Clara.

Rhinoa said...

It's a shame you didn't like this one. I loved Wicked and Son of a Witch and recently read Mirror Mirror. I hope ot get around to this at some point and will keep my fingers crossed I like it.

Trish said...

*Melissa - I really liked the tulip aspect of Confessions as well—great way to tie the whole story together, I thought. Wicked is a little more political than Confessions, but still good. Different from the musical, though.

*Laura - You should read this one soon! It wouldn’t take you too terribly long. Not like Jane Eyre. :) I think you’d like this one more than Wicked.

*Rhinoa - I did like this one, I just didn’t love it. I hope you like it, too. What did you think of Mirror Mirror? I’d like to read Son of a Witch sometime soon.